Frank Lloyd Wright’s unabashedly pro-Soviet sentiments during the 1930s

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan, Society of Cultural Relations Banquet, Moscow (1937)

Frank Lloyd Wright, almost indisputably the greatest architect America ever produced, was throughout his life a strong supporter of the ideals of liberty and democracy and strove to find their expression through architecture.  However, it is less well known that he was a staunch supporter of the Soviet social experiment during the 1930s.  Of course, he did not believe that this support was in any way incompatible with his prior belief in democracy and liberty.  Quite the opposite, he considered the Soviet Union to be embarking upon an entirely new path toward a more perfect democracy.  Like many other observers in the West, he failed to recognize the totalitarian and undemocratic nature of the Stalinist regime.  Wright can probably be excused for not seeing this at the time, though he did problematically endorse program of “Socialism in One Country” as a fitting course of action for the Russian people.  Nevertheless, Wright’s belief in the emancipatory potential of the Bolshevik Revolution is symptomatic of the great surge of utopian sentiment involving the young USSR, as well as of a deep disillusionment with the capitalist socioeconomic order, which was in shambles over the whole course of that decade.

You can download Wright’s various statements and articles written with regard to the Soviet Union by clicking the following link:

Frank Lloyd Wright on the Soviet Union

Frank Lloyd Wright with Mr. and Mrs. Arkin, outside Moscow (1937)

 The following is an excerpt from one of these exchanges:


October 19, 1933

Dear Mr. Wright:

A year ago the Pravda asked your opinion about the position of the intellectuals in the United States in connection with the economic crisis. Your opinion was then forwarded to Moscow. Today the Pravda editors, wishing to acquaint their readers more thoroughly with the changes wrought in the life of the intellectuals, during the last year, solicit your opinion on the following questions:

1. What change, if any, has taken place in the life of the intellectuals (engineers, technicians, architects, artists, writers, teachers, etc.) during the last year?

2. How has the prolongation of the crisis influenced the creative activities in this country in the realm of technique, art, literature and the sciences?

3. Do you see improvement ahead for the intellectual groups?

An early reply will be highly appreciated.

Yours sincerely,

Moissaye J. Olgin

My dear Mr. Olgin:

Little visible change in the life or the attitude toward life of the intelligentsia of the United States is evident. No clear thinking is possible to them. They are all the hapless beneficiaries of a success-system they have never clearly understood, but a system that worked miracles for them while they slept. The hardships of the last three years have left them confused but not without hope that more miracles will come to pass in their behalf. They are willing to wait for them to happen.

The capitalistic system is a gambling game. It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gamblers chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.

It is true that the educational system of the country has for many decades been breeding inertia. It aims to produce the middle-class mind which is able to function only in the middle of the road, boulevard preferred. It is the “safe” mind for the system as set up.

Machine power is vicarious power at best and breeds a lower type of individuality, it seems, the longer it functions. Action of any sort becomes less and less likely. So creative activity is a thing of the past — so far as it goes with machine power in these United States. Little art of any but the most superficial kind — the formula or the fashion — now characterizes the life of the States. The capacity for spiritual rebellion has grown small and the present ideals of success are making it smaller every day. No radical measures have been undertaken in the New Deal but there has been a great deal of tinkering and adjusting and pushing with prices to bring the old game alive again. Something more is needed than an arbitrary price-system to re-awaken capitalistic confidence in the spending of money.

The capitalistic system has evidently come to the necessity for a radical change that no tinkering can effect.

It is now proposed among the more sensible of the intelligentsia that all absentee-ownership be declared illegal by legislation.

The far-reaching consequences of such an enactment are hard to forecast but certainly the stranglehold of capitalism would be cut by such a measure and a freedom would ensue that would soon make Democracy a reality instead of the pretense it is. There is little chance however for any such measure until all the expedients have been tried and have failed in plain sight of everyone.

In the course of the next five years a real demand for such “repeal” of special privilege may come to pass. This is the feeling of the minority among the intelligentsia but they are doing nothing about it. They are spectators by birth, breeding, and habit.

Meantime all are getting on with about one-tenth of their former incomes.

I believe all three of your questions are answered in this answer to the first question.

1. The present economy has practically eliminated our profession, such as it was.

2. An entirely new set of ideas more in keeping with the principles of architecture are needed before thinking men can be inspired with sufficient confidence to go on building any more buildings. In the epoch now painfully closing — disguised as “economic depression” — architecture was only bad form of surface decoration: landlord bait for tenants. If the profession of architecture has any future it must get the building more directly and sensibly out of nature for the native.

3. Nor do I see any possibility of any return to the abnormality which has become normal, without some serious recognition of such organic integrity as a matter of means as well as an end to be achieved. Capitalistic centralization was content to employ the makeshift. Its economic structure was a makeshift. Its buildings were makeshifts. Its social life was an economic anxiety to makeshift. And finally its devotion to the makeshift is sterilizing all human creative power. There is left but ingenuity and scientific research.

4. I view the U.S.S.R. as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before. Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope. But I fear that machine worship to defeat capitalism may become inverted capitalism in Russia itself and so prostitute the man to the machine. Because the heart beats of the human soul are not like the ticking of a watch creative art is essential in any up-building of any social order worthy to be called organic and to endure. Individuality is a precious asset of the human race where it rests upon a common basis fair to all and should be rewarded according to its just value. This just reward is no less the problem of Russia now than of every other sincere attempt to enable all to rule and be ruled by their own bravest and their own best.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Lloyd Wright

Catherine Cooke’s harsh (but correct) review of Hugh Hudson’s Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1937

Catherine Cooke's book on the Russian avant-garde

Catherine Cooke, along with the Russian authors Selim Khan-Magomedov and Vladimir Paperny, was the greatest expert on the Soviet avant-garde whose works have appeared in English.  Unfortunately, she was killed in a driving accident back in 2004.  Her review here of Hugh Hudson’s book, melodramatically titled Blueprints and Blood, is absolutely correct in its assessment of Hudson’s many shortcomings.

Hudson, Hugh D., Jr. Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917- 1937. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. xviii + 260 pp. $35.00. $25.00.

This dense and frenetic book fires off in many directions, at issues that are never really explored, and at targets that have been isolated from their contexts. Within it, there are nuggets of that best kind of myopia and sharp detail that come from close work in archives, but they struggle in a sea of hectic accusation and generalized judgment. Repeatedly I wished the work was a still unpublished manuscript onto which one could force some selectivity and discipline by asking “why deduce this?,” “what of other work going on around that?,” “where is the earlier debate, the other literature, on this and this?” and most often, “why do we need this bit at all?” To do the work justice a publisher should have asked “Who is this aimed at?,” and reoriented a thesis (as I assume) into a book that played to the strengths of the research.

The “Blueprints” of the title feature only peripherally, for buildings are not the book’s subject. Nor is there “Blood” except metaphorically, as professionals “go out for each other’s blood.” Even “Stalinization” is never characterized with much clarity. After so much vituperative back-stabbing, no reader could fail to feel its significance for the distribution of power in Soviet professions. But its significance for the character of buildings themselves was a separate issue, and this is little developed. Hudson’s account indicates this duality, part intra-professional jealousy and part “style,” but here, as so often, the structural point is lost amidst detail. Most readers, whether architectural or Soviet-historical, will probably be more confused than enlightened as a result.

The introduction makes grandiose claims and assertions that ultimately reduce to the cliché of “Stalin crushing modernists.” The first two chapters are a general-purpose account of “the twenties in Soviet architecture” which I for one, after studying the topic for twenty-five years, found almost incomprehensible. The status of sources here, often for key ideas, is very uneven, and like much that follows, it needed reshaping to focus on those themes and personae relevant to the archival set-pieces.

The three nuggets of new archival research from inside committee meetings are extremely valuable and highly interesting in their own right. Whatever the readership envisaged, however, more “outside” material would have brought them to life. The first account, from TsGALI fond 681, concerns the power battles between new groups of antitraditionalist architects in 1921-25 within the Moscow art and design school (Vkhutemas), which was focus and test-bed for larger professional debates. Hudson’s material very usefully complements other work on this archive, notably Lodder’s broader account inRussian Constructivism (1983) and Khan-Magomedov’s pedagogical emphasis in the two-volume Vhutemas: Moscou 1920-1930 (1990).

The second archival vignette, from TsGALI fond 674, details the campaign of the Union of Architects’ Party Committee against Okhitovich, a Trotskyite who had allied himself with the Constructivist architects, and who in 1929 was the chief theorist of their “disurbanist” proposals for a linear, transport-based alternative to nodal traditional cities. Hitherto “secret” reports reveal the details of how he was scapegoated and eventually exiled to die in the gulag.

Back in 1969 I sought to research this “urbanist-disurbanist” debate myself and was summarily refused archival access. Therefore I am personally grateful to Hudson for this intimate detail on why Okhitovich has remained quite so unmentionable. But others, I fear, may be mystified as to the significance of the man or the weight of the issues he raised, for there is no context here of the eighteen-month public, professional and political debate of which his ideas were a part.

Hudson’s third nugget, from the same TsGALI “secret” fond, concerns the politicking before and during the First Congress of Soviet Architects of 1937. This record of a seminal stage in the professional purges is exceptionally valuable as even public sessions of the congress were little documented in the architectural press. He also rectifies certain impressions given by Starr’s account (Melnikov, 1978), and notably illuminates the courageous outspokenness of pioneer modernist Alexander Vesnin, who had also starred in the Vkhutemas story of fifteen years earlier.

This continuity of persons, however, like much else, is overwhelmed by an underlying attitude, indeed contradiction, in Hudson’s account. He would present these modernist architects as poor fools who squandered their chance to beat the old guard by petty infighting over rival credos. They were too “mulish,” too little “attuned to the politics of revolutionary Russia . . . to have noted the need to collaborate” (p. 86). Their leaders “could not look beyond their narrow disagreements” and “demonstrated the absence of an appreciation of compromise” (p. 86). They showed “political immaturity and intellectual intolerance” (p. 100), “egos dominating over intelligence” (p. 136). All this seems, however, to forget what his introduction told us, that “the greatest creation” of these “radical architects” were “these debates . . . which forced into the public arena issues that had previously received scant attention in the mainstream of the Marxist-Leninist revolution” (p. 10). Quite so. And their contribution to debates in architecture was of equal importance worldwide.

On both these fronts their impact would have been reduced, not enlarged, by “collaboration” and “compromise.” It was precisely their pursuit of distinctive credos, with the genuine fervor of creative professional people, that has us still talking about them now. Hudson is more confused than he thinks, and it is a pity, as there is much of great value here for our growing understanding of the Stalin period.

Catherine Cooke, The Open University